Silk Painting – Getting Started

Silk scarf painted with Deka SilkPainting silk fabric can be very exciting and satisfying. The silk paint colours flow easily and readily the moment the loaded brush makes contact with the silk.

Silk fabrics such as Pongee and Habotai are smooth and finely woven and the surface diffuses colour evenly. Painted scarves are light and airy with a good smooth handle.

The photograph below is taken from a silk painting by Linda Chapman. She used gutta outliner to define the edges of the petals and applied water to the painted areas to help push the silk paint colours around and blend them together.

Painting silk with iron-fix paints

There are two quite distinctive ways of painting silk fabric; iron-fix silk paints, which are pigments that stay on the surface of the fibres and steam-fix silk dyes which penetrate the silk fibres.

Iron-fix silk paints are slightly duller than the vibrant colours of dyes and leave the silk fabric with a stiffer handle. However, the convenience of these paints provide an effective and wash fast solution, especially for those first learning the technique of painting silk.

Using steam fix silk dyes will give superior results.
These products are made from mixes of Acid dyes and other soluble dyes. Scarf featured on Fibrecrafts catalogue coverThe dyes colour all the fibre and allow light to transmit and reflect from the surface of the silk fibres in the fabric. The colours are bright and the fabric retains its suppleness. In addition to the ready-mixed silk dyes, acid dye powders can be made into a solution for painting silk. Once the dyes are dry on the silk fabric, they need to be fixed with the heat from steam.

This silk scarf was hand painted by Katherine Barney using steam-fix dyes.

Painting Silk – our tips

Throughout the blog there are a number of posts with information about how to use the silk paints and mediums found on the George Weil website. Here is a summary of some of the techniques.

Using a Stretcher Frame

Before painting silk fabric, suspend it securely using pins or claws across a stretcher frame. Pull the fabric tightly to ensure a taut surface. Leaving the silk loose will encourage dyes or paints to run and pool affecting the finished result. Place the first pin in the centre of the farthest edge and then in each corner. Pull the silk fabric across the frame and place pins on the opposite side. Repeat this on the remaining sides.

Gutta Outliner

A gutta outliner will help to control where the silk paint colours flow. It acts as a barrier to prevent colours blending into each other. The autofade pen is an exceptionally useful tool for planning your design.

When you are ready to apply the gutta ensure you keep the nib clear by wiping the tip regularly with a paper towel.  It helps to start by running the gutta line off a piece of paper, held in your other hand, straight on to the silk. In intricate areas make sure the gutta outliner does not touch the fabric, but is held just above. Aim to produce a smooth, constant line. Ensure all gutta outlines make a complete, unbroken circuit (much like the black outline used in a child’s colouring book).

The gutta stands slightly proud when it is first applied but sinks into the silk fabric as it dries, sealing the fibres so that no paint or dye will seep through.

Allow gutta to dry thoroughly before applying the silk paint within the spaces you have created from the gutta outline. You do not have to wait for the colour to dry and the areas can be painted with one brush load. Adding water to the centre lightens the colour and pushes it towards the gutta outline. Inserting a wire into the nib will help to prevent blockage when the outliner is not in use.

Free Style Silk Painting

Primer, or anti-spread, is used when outlined borders are not required to define areas of colour. Apply it first with a broad brush, dry and then paint, the colours will not spread so readily. Using primer allows for a similar effect to water colour painting on paper.

Starting to Paint

When painting silk, always work from the damp area outwards to avoid water lines where two areas meet. Silk paints blend to a natural, subtle effect. Colour spreads freely and a little colour in the middle of the area will spread towards the edges. Paint with light colours first so that if you make a mistake the area can be covered with a darker colour.

Increase the density of the silk paint by carefully applying more colour when the first application has dried. Applying light washes of water or alcohol can modify the effects. Some pigments are more mobile and will alter the tones by moving with the wash to the outer edge of the area. Experiment on a sample to find what effects can be developed and the quantities of fluid required.

Highlighter opaque white paint provides emphasis and detailing in areas such as the whites of eyes, and sun lit areas. Black helps define the image, used for shadows and fine dark lines. Both can be laid carefully over dry paint or mixed to create a tint or tone from a working colour. Mix-white is used to create pastel shades from the primaries and to fade off colours without losing the hue.

Thickener helps prevent the colour from flooding the fabric. It can be used to thicken the paint for screen-printing and freehand painting. Add a little water, an extender or thinner to the silk paint to create transparent pale tones.

Adding Texture & Pattern when Painting Silk

The crystals from effects salt will soak up wet or damp paint from the surface of the silk and create random patterning. In a similar way, water droplets will push still wet paint away from their centre. Tilting the silk on its frame will make the water, and any wet paint, move in the same direction.

Painting Silk adding salt and water for effect

Further information about painting silk can be found on the Guild of Silk Painters web site. The Guild of Silk Painters brings together silk painting enthusiasts from all over the world and provides a paper journal, useful information, links and more. The workshop pages are particularly interesting and informative. Please note that the web pages will open in a separate window.

Dyeing Silk Fabric

Silk fabric responds well to a wide range of resist patterning techniques including Batik, Shibori and Katozome using Acid Dyes and Indigo. Alternatively, undyed silk fabrics can be dyed using Discharge Acid dyes which are easily removed using a discharge paste. The discharge paste can be combined with Illuminating Acid dye which replaces the original colour.

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